Quebec takes the low road

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Russell Wangersky will head out in March to take part in the annual literary festival the March Hare.  — Telegram file photo

I’ll admit it: by the time I was growing up in this country, multiculturalism was already a fundamental part of Canadian government policy. That said, I went to a school in Halifax that was almost completely white, and once I was in university, I realized to my embarrassment that I had been surrounded by all sorts of racism that, as a teen wandering through the mists of girls, puberty and snack foods, I simply hadn’t recognized.

Nova Scotia, even in the 1980s, was still a place where racist jokes could be said out loud in places as public as Tim Hortons.

But I thought we were getting somewhere. I thought that, as a country, we were getting better at looking past the outside trappings of people’s clothing and religious iconography. Clearly, I was wrong.

The first hint? Quebec’s odious social charter. For anyone who has been living under a rock, Quebec’s provincial government is proposing a Charter of Quebec Values. The government describes the charter as a removal of religion from the public sphere — no more religious clothing or symbols for anyone working directly or indirectly for government. In fact, though, it removes some symbols, while allowing existing Christian symbols throughout the province to remain on a “historical” basis. Religious clothing? Not if you’re working for the government. Or accompanying your children on a school-sponsored trip.

Call it what it is; xenophobia is probably too polite. Overt racism? Not a bad start.

It’s cunning way to simply disenfranchise whole groups of people based on their religion — nothing more and nothing less.

It is also a thinly veiled effort to appeal to the most base part of human nature — the part that hides our own failings behind a hatred for the “special treatment” of those who are somehow different.

Instead of looking in the mirror for why we might be where we are, it’s easier to pick some other identifiable group and blame everything on them.

Shameful reaction

The second hint? That the Quebec attack on ordinary — but visibly different — people seems to be getting some level of support — not only in Quebec, but beyond those borders. That’s not just sad — it’s pathetic. What’s next? Shall we pick a religion and suggest it’s the reason why hardworking Christians can’t find work? Some kind of international conspiracy? Why, we could have camps …

That all sounds far-fetched, perhaps, and there are those who suggest that the Parti Québécois minority government is simply trying to set up a constitutional stalking-horse to let them attack the rest of Canada for not understanding how Quebec is different and unique.

What a concept that would be: bigotry as political chess.

When you make laws that target specific religious observances, you can, pardon the pun, dress it up any way you like. It’s still racism.

So why talk about Quebec’s particular parlour sport here? Because this is not an issue where you can just shrug and say “whatever.”

Positive message

I like the approach of an Ontario health board, one that greeted the proposed charter with an immediate advertising campaign that said “We don’t care about what’s on your head — we care about what’s in it.” Chances are, there are a fair few health-care professionals who may, as a result of their religious beliefs, feel less than welcome in La Belle Province. By all means, let’s make them feel welcome somewhere else in Canada.

I don’t care what’s on your head, either. I don’t care where you come from or what you believe, any more than you should care where I come from and believe.

The only thing that should matter is whether you have the skills to do the job you were hired to do.

If good people sit down and shut up about this, then make no mistake: the bigots will win. This is just one first step down a dirty, small-minded and dangerous road. Let’s all do our best to stop it in its tracks.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Charter of Quebec Values, Parti Québécois

Geographic location: Quebec, Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada Ontario La Belle Province Canada.I

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Recent comments

  • Tim Jamison
    September 21, 2013 - 12:08

    This is not about racism. Racism is being used to drive the plan, but it's only the means, not the end. There are a few ends. Vengence is one. Were it not for the ethnic vote, Quebec would already be independent. Also, making the ethnic vote leave will better prepare the PQ for the next vote. A very large version of nepotism is another. The PQ desires a truely pure laine public service as it feels only true Quebecers are entitled to eat from the public trough. It's only racist if you're too shallow and inexperienced to be able to read between the lines

  • Cashin Delaney
    September 17, 2013 - 18:55

    Not caring what someone believes is hardly multicultural, nor is any decent culture on earth based solely on speciality skills of workers. Would you want to go live in a strange land where nobody cares what you believe, and values you only as a drone? (maybe you did?!) Should we not care what our respected female middle aged white christian premiers believe, and just trust them based on political skill alone?

  • seanoairborne
    September 17, 2013 - 12:27

    What a Cod Balls!!

  • Robert
    September 17, 2013 - 11:53

    I fancy there are far more pressing issues to take up any Premier's time but seemingly not so in PQ! Pretty sad for a "distinct" society not to take considerable exception to such racism tones. I hope PQers are better then this and put their premier in her place! If not than I see it as opportunity for the rest of Canada that would welcome ALL!

  • Ed Power
    September 17, 2013 - 10:22

    Maggie Carter's argument in favour of this type of ban - as it would represent the emancipation of women from centuries of cultural paternalism and misogyny - is as valid as Russell's argument that this ban represents a 'kinder' and 'gentler' example of the exploitation of one of the worst, and most common, practices in human history......the fear of "THEM", the "OTHERS", the . Congratulations, Ms. Marois, there is nothing quite like picking at the scabs covering the wounds of centuries of bigotry and hatred for crass political purposes. Vive le Quebec! Vive le pure laine Quebec!

    • Chantal
      September 17, 2013 - 12:03

      Maggie Carter's argument reeks of cultural paternalism. i.e. "We know what's good for you better than you do, so we will emancipate you because you are ignorant don't have the ability to speak for yourself. Yes, we are taking the choice out of your hands, but trust us, we're more civilized."

  • saelcove
    September 17, 2013 - 10:10

    Did Canadians have a choice NO it was shoved down our throats and as far as Ontario goes who cares,

  • Wild Rose
    September 17, 2013 - 10:02

    I agree with Maggy Carter. We need a charter of values for Newfoundland or all of Canada. We are losing our Christian heritage and these people should learn to respect our culture. Multiculturalism is a joke and these people should leave thier superstichons at home. The only racists are the ones who force thier religions in our faces.

    • Chantal
      September 17, 2013 - 13:27

      Aaah, there's that lovely refrain "Christian heritage." Add a flag and you have fascism at its finest.

  • Doug Smith
    September 17, 2013 - 09:35

    Maggy Carter, your extremely thoughtful and insightful comments are exactly correct. The vast majority of men are unfortunately oblivious to the subjugation and second class status of women (a position they have occupied since day one) throughout the world. Your keen observations will be an aid to men no doubt in raising their consciousness and seeing the error of their ways. Doug Smith, Grand Falls-Windsor

  • Michel
    September 17, 2013 - 09:23

    Testimony of a famous Canadian comedian in today's Press newspaper: The mother Eman El-Husseini 's is a practicing Muslim, but it is not veiled, said the comedian. Eman was also a practitioner. But not anymore. She never wore the veil. She says that her father made ​​a point to visit all the regions of Quebec with his family. And that during these trips, they never had bad experiences with Quebecers. "My parents do not speak French and all of us, it's so obvious that physically is not from Quebec! Well, we have always met people in the region who spoke to them in English and welcoming us. " You see, Quebec are not racist. I will still tell you a story as an official in the public service. There are immigrants who come to our services by requiring not be used by women because of their religion, which their is refused, is racist to you?

  • Gillian StokvisHauer
    September 17, 2013 - 08:47

    Thank-you. I am only a 3rd generation Canadian. Our 1st Nations are 1000's of years here in North America. I am speechless about what Pauline Marois is proposing. Its like Nazism. She's an immigrant too. Ahhhhh! I just can't believe in 2013 in Canada this absurd idea has risen its head. Shame shame shame.

    • Maggy Carter
      September 17, 2013 - 15:10

      No, you are the one who should be ashamed - deeply ashamed and embarrassed for having made that obnoxious, odious comparison with Nazism. Your comment is absolutely disgusting and should never have been published. Mr. Wangersky is partly to blame for having yelled 'fire' in a crowded theatre. "Zenophobia, bigotry, racism" - these are the traits he casually, carelessly ascribes not only to the government of Quebec but to the majority of Quebecers who favour this legislation. Does this person Gillian not realize that the Nazis forced Jews to wear the Star of David to make it easier to abuse and exterminate them - six million of them. And you equate that with a government that wants to de-religify government institutions - to separate church and state - to avoid any suggestion it is unwittingly contributing to the subordination of women. Get a grip on yourself lady. Follow the advice of Quebec's minister of international relations to English Canada in today Globe - "take a deep breath". Come back to the table when you are prepared to engage in civil discourse.

    • gillian hauer
      March 24, 2015 - 08:17

      Dear Maggie: I am from Jewish heritage. Your response is, well, what can I say, a bit absurd. It is now 2015. Nation building is the way of the planet ... and it does seem to be religion based and, yes, killing off of minority groups (Syria et al) is how it goes, Ottoman Empire to 2015. I did not appreciate your rant.

  • Maggy Carter
    September 17, 2013 - 07:43

    As countless scholars and international women's groups have insisted, some religions denigrate or discriminate against women. Our Charter of Rights includes protection for women from discrimination. The garb worn by women in strict compliance with the requirements of certain religious sects constitutes an inherent public acknowledgement of their inferiority to males. Is is voluntary? Within the oppressive regimes where religion trumps all other considerations - including the rule of law - compliance is anything but voluntary. Breaches can, and are, met with the most severe sanctions including death. Canada, of course, would not allow such overt discrimination and repression. And yet to believe that the deliberate obscuration of one’s face by females is voluntary is to ignore the enormous social, religious, community, cultural, economic and familial pressures that are exerted on women from birth to ensure that their compliance is seen to be voluntary. A woman who wears a hijab, niqab, and burka does so because she is culturally inured to it. That doesn’t make it right. It demeans her whether she knows it or not. More importantly, her wearing of it demeans all women. The women of Canada should be able to look to their charter right of gender equality for relief from the discomfort and intimidation of being forced to interact with public servants (let alone be treated or taught by public servants) whose very appearance is a statement of their belief that the woman standing before them is a second class citizen. When two charter protections - religious freedom and sexual equality - clash, I will argue strenuously, and will expect my government to argue strenuously, that the innate rights of women - representing one-half the population of this country - must take precedence. Is that, as Wangersky calls it ‘racist’ or ‘bigoted’? Does it violate personal freedoms? I think not. France, which bans the wearing of niqabs and burkas in all public places, is the birthplace of modern democracy. Like Canada – like Quebec – it is among the most tolerant and compassionate countries in the world. But France is not alone. Veils are also banned in such overwhelmingly Muslim countries as Tunisia and Turkey where they are seen as retarding the emancipation of women. Time to remove the veil from your own eyes Mr. Wangersky. Call for discussion and debate, yes – but don’t condemn based on , at best, a superficial understanding of a very complex subject.

    • Chantal
      September 17, 2013 - 09:53

      So in the interests of women's self-determination, you would force them not to wear a hijab niqab, or burka. Has it occurred to you that these women have their own minds and have the right to dress as they wish? It's their own choice how they dress as how you dress is your choice. How does this harm you and how is it any of your, or anyone else’s business?

    • Just wondering
      September 17, 2013 - 10:06

      Will you also forbid nuns from wearing habits?

    • Anna
      September 17, 2013 - 13:55

      But is it their own choice Chantal? Or is it the choice of their imam, their father, their brother. Maggie presents a good case for at least limiting veils in the workplace. My guess is that a few will quit and stay home - perhaps at the insistence of their families - but that many others will remain at work and welcome the freedom of not having to wearing something that deep down they didn't want to wear in the first place. BTW 'just wondering' when was the last time you say a veiled nun working as a public servant?

  • Petertwo
    September 17, 2013 - 06:16

    It strikes me as being a bit ironic, this charter of Quebec values, as I had the impression that multiculturalism was originally a Quebec initiative via Pierre Trudeau. It is not unlike the other message of bilingualism being imposed on Canada, another initiative for ROC but not for Quebec, unilingual signs and the language police, for example. As for "values" symbols are not values, as you noted they do'nt change what is in the mind. Being secular does not mean being honest, in fact it has little moral meaning , it is a very slippery slope where people slide around daily and forget about moral values, when anything goes.